The Williamsburgh Historical Society hosted reporter and author Claudia Smith Brinson April 30 to speak in conjunction with the traveling Smithsonian exhibit, Voices and Votes–Democracy in America, that will be at the Society’s African-American Archives, adjacent to the museum, through May 28.
In introducing Brinson to a small group gathered in the auditorium at Williamsburg Technical College, Society Vice President Margaret Chandler noted that the spectacular exhibit begins with the founders of this country making “great leaps of faith” and then explores the ways in which those who came after them have made their own “great leaps” in order for democracy to work better for each succeeding generation. Chandler said Brinson in her book, Stories of Struggle: The Clash over Civil Rights in South Carolina, takes an in-depth look at one of those “great leaps of faith.”
Brinson, who worked as a journalist for 33 years, noted that when she was a young reporter at The State, she found that the life stories of the Black people she interviewed were very different from the stories told to her by White people. For example, she said, she had never read anything in The State on Briggs v. Elliott, a 1947 legal action filed in Clarendon County by 20 Black families in the Summerton area asking that the school district provide a bus so their children would not have to walk nine miles to attend Scott’s Branch School. Although a three-judge panel in South Carolina ruled against the petitioners, the case became one of five cases argued before the United States Supreme Court under the caption Brown v. Board of Education, a landmark case in which the justices ordered de-segregation of all public schools in the United States.
When Brinson became interested in Briggs, three of the women who signed the petition were still living in Summerton. They had never told their story to anyone, not even other family members. They wept as they talked to her because they realized that their time on earth was growing short, and if they did not tell their stories, those stories of these important events would die with them. She said they trusted her because they had seen that in other stories she had written, she had approached them with an open heart and an open mind. “I would come to them with an open mind and a box of tissues,” Brinson said. “We would often cry together” as the stories unfolded.
Attorney Thurgood Marshall was consulted and worrying about the consequences he knew the families would face, he suggested they give up the fight. But they were adamant. Marshall, who later went on to serve as an Associate Justice on the US Supreme Court, was correct in his concern. Every person who signed the petition lost his or her job. Many of them eventually left the state so that their children could obtain a better education. J. Waties Waring, the White U.S. District Court Judge for the Eastern District of South Carolina, sided with the petitioners. As a result of this and other pro-Civil Rights decisions, he was ostracized by other white Charlestonians and had rocks thrown through his windows, while the Ku Klux Klan burned a cross in his yard. He, too, eventually left South Carolina.
Brinson noted that the families didn’t quit although they were aware of what lay before them. She said that while working on stories about Briggs v. Elliott and in writing her book, she met some of the greatest people. “They were not angry; they all felt that they had done all they could to further civil rights just a bit.”
The story of Briggs v. Elliott is just one local example of the many “leaps of faith” that are a part of our ever-changing democracy.
Brinson’s lecture was co-sponsored by the South Carolina Humanities Council. Voices and Votes–Democracy in America is part of the Museums on Main Street program of the Smithsonian Institution. Kingstree is the traveling exhibit’s first stop in South Carolina. Visit the exhibit at the African-American Archives, 127 Hampton Avenue in Kingstree. It is open Tuesdays, Wednesdays and Thursdays from 10 a.m. until 3 p.m. through May 26, and Saturdays, May 7, and 28 from noon to 4 p.m. Call 843-355-3303 for more information.
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